Richard Reeves

Propaganda War at Home Is Between Cia and Everybody Else

DALLAS -- For more than five months in 1998 and 1999, the U.S. ambassador to Botswana regularly reported odd doings around the embassy on a treeless, shopless street in Gaborone, the capital of the country. Suddenly cars and sightseers began going by. They looked like Arabs, or at least foreigners in that black African country, and they were carrying and using expensive and powerful cameras, still and video -- their license plates were from stolen cars -- to photograph the compound from all angles.

This, if you remember, was going on just after two neighboring American embassies, in Kenya and Tanzania, were attacked by car-bombers on Aug. 7, 1998. The ambassador's cables were going to the Central Intelligence Agency back home in Langley, Va. He received no answers, finally going to the government of Botswana to ask that its soldiers be assigned major protection duties at the U.S. compound.

Things like this had been going on around the world for at least 10 years. Most ambassadors just retired, grinding their teeth and keeping their mouths shut about the fact that the Foreign Service seemed to be left hanging out to dry -- or die -- in places rarely mentioned on the nightly news.

But our man in Botswana, Bob Krueger, a former representative and senator from Texas, was better connected than most, and when local intelligence agencies told him to expect an attack within two months -- planned, he was told, by Osama bin Laden -- he decided to go back to Washington himself to sound the alarm. He began by seeing an old friend, a senior senator whose duties included oversight of intelligence agencies. "Bob," his friend said in private," the CIA hardly pays any attention to us over here in the Senate."

He got the same answer, and repeated tales of CIA arrogance, wherever he went.

Then he kept his mouth shut, too. Until now.

Krueger wrote a long piece in The Dallas Morning News last Sunday under the headline: "When I called CIA, it put me on hold."

He began: "The attacks of Sept. 11 revealed one of the most devastating failures of a national intelligence agency in U.S. history ..." Later on, he added: "I sat quietly on my outrage for a long time. ... The CIA refused to take such warnings seriously enough ... my silence was probably a disservice to my country."

One of the reasons men such as Krueger have to tell their stories is because the CIA is mounting a formidable propaganda offensive -- disinformation, some of it -- trying to get across the idea that it was their warnings that were going unheeded in the White House and in Congress. In the same issue as Krueger's pained admissions, the Morning News printed a Washington Post story -- one of many recent Langley leaks -- under the headline: "For 4 Years, CIA paid team to track Bin Laden." But it seems, say CIA sources, their readiness to take action was always thwarted by communications problems or the indecisiveness of political leaders.

The same story with varied details is being pumped out every day from Langley: The major intelligence failure is always someone else's fault, never the fault of the people being paid to protect not only embassies but Americans everywhere, overseas and at home.

Each of us is free to believe either side of the current exchange. But you have to score one point for Krueger's version, because his name is on his charges. CIA sources, as usual, are anonymous. I'm with Krueger.

In the end, he writes:

"One hates to suggest forming yet another committee in Washington. But well-known events during the past several decades, as well as countless actions that never became public, indicate a pattern of oversight is required if Americans are to receive the protective intelligence they deserve. ... Recent lapses have cost many lives and caused much grief. They require not an overhaul but high standards of accountability and performance."

This is not the time to debate CIA performance, but it should be at the very top of the nation's agenda when the shooting stops in this terrorism crisis.

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Richard Reeves